The narrative of constant crisis promulgated by the Democratic party and progressive activists is merely a fig leaf for authoritarian, anti-democratic power grabs.
Emergencies have been recognized as unique and special events for most of human history, something the dictionary definition confirms. On the societal or civilizational scale, these crises can take many forms and relate to myriad causes – natural disaster, war, famine, pandemic, economic collapse, revolution, and more. These unforeseen, dramatic events are generally time-sensitive and limited in nature; floodwaters recede, harvests improve, viruses weaken and immunity spreads, and the business cycle rises once more. As the centuries have gone by, human societies have found useful ways of dealing with these emergency events, often tasking government institutions or leaders with crisis response. From the ancient past to the modern day, those temporary powers granted to government during periods of extreme tumult have been used to greatly relieve suffering and shorten the duration and scope of the disaster. But just as often, they have been used for ill; to agglomerate power in non-emergency situations, superficially extend real crises to retain deeper control, or permanently alter the political status quo. We are not yet at those destructive levels, but our politics have been slowly inching along that path for decades now. Under the current Democratic administration and Congress, however, this slow burn has rapidly accelerated. History can help us understand the perils that come along when one stokes the flames of permanent emergency.
The danger to politics and society stemming from an attitude of permanent emergency is almost ever-present in the historical record, going all the way back to at least the Roman Republic of 509-27 BC, the predecessor of the famous Empire. The Republic had a fairly advanced governmental system for the era, with various “elected” officials, a functioning Senate, and diffusion of power between various persons and institutions. In an age of monarchies, tribes, despotism, and semi-divine rulers, this was quite unique. The Roman political order was so well-developed that it took concrete steps to deal with emergencies: temporary changes to its hierarchy and power distribution which were meant to deal with the problem at hand. The special magistrate created for these situations would be able to appoint major officials, totally control the apparatus of government, and wield near-absolute power to defeat the threat to Rome. The catch was that this office-holder only was allowed to retain his power for a period of up to 6 months, although most relinquished their authority once the immediate crisis passed. This specified temporality reflects the time-limited nature of emergencies which has been understood for millennia. You may be wondering why I’m tiptoeing around the name for this omnipotent magistrate. The reason is that it speaks directly to the linkage of permanent emergency with the destruction of freedom and participatory rule. That office-holder’s title in Roman law has been passed down through the ages and is indeed a word in modern English – dictator.
The permanent association of the word dictator with the abuse of unilateral power comes from the inauspicious end of the office itself, something which coincided with the very end of the Republic. As Rome expanded, the six-month term of the dictator made it fairly useless in combating the major crises which engulfed much of the Republic’s territory across Italy and the Mediterranean, leading to it falling out of use in the 3rd century BC. Despite a brief resurrection to counter the Carthaginian invasion under Hannibal during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), the office of dictator remained unfilled entirely after 202 BC. That is, until the tumultuous and strife-riven period of the civil wars in the 1st century BC brought the dictator back with a vengeance. Under the dictatorship of the Roman leader Lucius Cornelius Sulla (better known as Sulla) after his victory in the first Civil War, structural political reforms were blended with authoritarian purges, consolidation of political power, and proscriptions of enemies ending only with their exile or execution. Sulla’s dictatorship was the first to be totally unlimited by duration, and only ended when he resigned after several years of absolute authority and destruction of his opposition.
The trend towards the dissolution of the Republic was set firmly in motion. It culminated – famously or infamously, depending on the historian you ask – with the dictatorship of one Gaius Julius Caesar. After his successful and enduring conquest of Gaul (much of modern-day France), Caesar marched his army back to Italy with the express purpose of building his political power and vanquishing his rivals. The next years of civil war were immensely destructive to the fabric of Roman society, and ended with a resounding victory for Caesar and his allies, as well as a declaration of a 10-year dictatorship along the lines of Sulla’s. After more successes for Caesar, including some major plans to revise the structures of the Republic itself, he was named dictator for life in 44 BC. Shortly thereafter, on the Ides of March, Gaius Julius Caesar, seen by many as the prototype Roman Emperor, was assassinated by those whom he attempted to displace. The killing was not enough to save the Republic, however, and Caesar’s protege Octavian – now known as Augustus – took over where his adoptive father left off. By the time of Augustus’s death of natural causes in 14 AD, the Roman Republic was no more, replaced by the Roman Empire.
The association of permanent emergency powers and dictatorial overreach has been cemented through its near-constant recurrence over the past 2000 years. Labeling something a “crisis” opens up avenues for cynical political maneuvering that are not available in normal times. Emergency measures allowed Otto von Bismarck to crack down on socialist political activity, gave Lenin and his Bolshevik lackeys total control of the Russian state, and enabled Hitler to assume his role as führer of a Nazi party-state. More recently, emergencies have been used as cover for authoritarian power grabs and coups across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This rationale has been used to justify government censorship, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and extrajudicial executions. In the United States, our history with government power grabs under the guise of emergency (real or imagined) is long and detailed, albeit not nearly as destructive or outright autocratic as the aforementioned examples.
Both parties have used emergencies – genuine and otherwise – as rationales for exercises of executive or federal power which would not be tolerated in normal circumstances. In the 20th century and beyond, however, these power grabs have largely been conducted under Democratic administrations. The first real instance of this was Woodrow Wilson’s war socialism, in which he used the crisis of World War I to centralize power and expand the reach of the federal government. World War I was a genuine crisis, but it was far less so for the United States, even after our belated entrance to the conflict in 1917. Wilson took advantage of this opportunity to enact the ideas he laid out in an 1887 essay, “Socialism and Democracy,” in which he favorably described the view that “all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights be put out of view, and that the State consider itself bound to stop only at what is unwise or futile in its universal superintendence alike of individual and of public interests.” War socialism led to many abuses, including jailing of political opponents for their speech, nationalization of industries, and severe restrictions on individual rights. It also created the foundation for a progressive ideology of expansion of the State and its use to direct the economy and the lives of citizens. These fairly unpopular moves led to the election of Republican Warren G. Harding as president on a platform of returning to normalcy. In office, he released political prisoners like the socialist leader Eugene Debs and unwound the actions undertaken by Wilson. The Democrats have been chasing the dragon of war socialism ever since.
After Wilson inaugurated the modern abuse of emergency powers to unilaterally expand government, his path was followed by the ever-popular Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who brought the New Deal into being on the back of the Great Depression – a policy response that, according to economists, prolonged the economic pain. Some of FDR’s policies were rolled back after their failures became conspicuous, others were rejected by the courts, his party, or the American people, and yet others remain active to this day. Given his longevity in office, his oratorical and political skill, and his laudable performance in World War II, FDR is fondly remembered as a great leader in the historical and popular imagination. But he did as much as anyone to cement Democrats in their drive to utilize crises to maximum benefit.
In the 21st century, Barack Obama was a strong proponent of this strategy, and took it to the next level by frequently exaggerating problems into crises. President Obama did deal with a serious crisis early in his tenure, namely the recession which followed the collapse of the American housing and banking sectors in 2008, and his response predictably followed the Roosevelt playbook. The bailouts of banks, financial institutions, and automakers, along with the stimulus bill and the mass purchasing of bad assets by the Federal Reserve were enormous interventions into the American economy that presented a sea change in how government interacted with the private sector. After these measures were deemed successful by the media and friendly economists (although their track record was mixed at best), the administration sought out other opportunities to capitalize on the feeling of emergency. It was, in the words of the Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a policy of “never let[ting] a serious crisis go to waste.”
The administration would proceed to pitch everything as an emergency which, due to Republican intransigence in Congress, required executive action. This “pen-and-phone” strategy ran directly counter to the American constitutional order, which deliberately separates powers and vests in Congress the power to make law. In the US, gridlock is part of the system and inaction is not a failure of the institution. American voters elected Republicans to Congress in large numbers precisely to prevent further progressive policies and expansions of government. It is reminiscent of lyrics from the Canadian band Rush’s song, Freewill: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” The gridlock was a conscious decision by the electorate to rein in the powers of the State, and it was perfectly in line with the constitutional order. That did not stop the President from exceeding his authority through policies like DACA, the targeted immigration amnesty program he enacted unilaterally. I support the goal of that policy, but it must be made law through the proper channels, not dictated from above by a monarchical president.
And this brings us to the question of the moment: where does President Biden fit into all of this? Unsurprisingly, he falls directly into the well-trodden path walked by his predecessors. Surprisingly though, he seems to be using the narrative of crisis far more regularly than any of his forebears and has hyperbolized several run-of-the-mill issues into planetary-scale emergencies. According to the administration, abortion merits an emergency declaration, Covid is still being treated as a public health emergency (including all the government overreach) long after it ceased to be one, and oil companies were threatened with the use of emergency powers for responding to oil price hikes. At the same time, the White House has downplayed or ignored some of the most serious problems faced by the American people – indeed some even warranting the moniker of ‘crisis’. Inflation, at its highest rates since the early 1980s, is as close to a genuine domestic crisis as currently exists, and it is followed by energy concerns and potential shortages. The President has seemed blasé about the topic and Democratic leadership in Congress is touting their “Inflation Reduction Act” which spends hundreds of billions and will not reduce inflation. Illegal immigration has dramatically increased under the Biden administration, something of rising concern to voters. The response? Downplay and deny. In short, the Biden administration has promulgated and leaned into a strategy of permanent emergency, purely for partisan gain.
The best example of this strategy comes in the domain of one of the progressive left’s favorite causes: climate change. (Pardon me, climate crisis. Or is it climate catastrophe? I can’t keep it straight.) In media outlets and political rhetoric, the phenomenon of climate change has been billed as an existential crisis, threatening our very survival on this planet. Activist politicians like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have bluntly stated that the world will end in less than two decades if radical climate action isn’t immediately undertaken (that was 3 years ago). This framing has inflamed passions around this issue like nothing else, something which has made it a prime target for use as a political tool. Another factor in its favor on that front is its nature as something which occurs over the very long-term, but is still billed as imminently apocalyptic. This confluence of features makes climate change the most serious vehicle for the permanent emergency.
Before the passage of the “Inflation Reduction Act” – which is oddly being promoted as a climate change bill despite its name – Democrats and activists were pushing for Biden to declare a climate emergency, with protests at the annual Congressional baseball game and angry screeds online. Politicians like Ro Khanna (D-CA) have promoted such a declaration, an idea the Biden administration weighed seriously. Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse (see above) has advocated for “executive Beast Mode,” something laid out in Article XIII of the Constitution, but never used. I’m kidding, it’s in Article XX. (Actually, it’s quite obviously not a thing at all.) Despite being hailed as a civilization-saving bill (no, I’m not kidding this time), it will not change anything climate-related in the short-term and likely will not in the long-run either, given the fact that China, the biggest polluter, is increasing its use of dirty fuels. This fact, combined with the cataclysmic framing Democrats have adopted around this issue, means that the push for a climate emergency will quickly return.
We need to resist this cynical expansion of a problem into an existential crisis for the purpose of increasing government’s involvement in daily life. We all saw how public health emergency measures were abused over the past 2 years, from the closure of outdoor playgrounds and the massive restrictions on schools to the enforcement of novel vaccination requirements with few exceptions and considerations for economic and personal impact. Nobody wants to live the pandemic forever, but the state of permanent emergency would turn our lives into a 2020 version of Groundhog Day. The progressives who have sway in the Biden administration are pushing for this reality under the banner of climate change, and will not stop until radical “solutions” (read: Wilson’s “universal superintendence alike of individual and of public interests”) are implemented nationwide. And due to the permanent nature of climate change, the emergency powers will be similarly long-lived. After all, you can never let a crisis go to waste.